FEATURE | World Cup One To Watch: Cody Gakpo

The Netherlands’ World Cup squad counts many of Europe’s best young talents, with none more impressive than PSV winger Cody Gakpo. The 23-year-old needs no introduction at this point such is his growing reputation, which alone is a testament to his devastating form as attracting the world’s attention while playing in the Eredivisie is no small feat.

Gakpo has been one of the league’s most exciting players for four years now but has taken things to another level this season, producing 13 goals and 17 assists in 23 matches across all competitions, the most goal contributions of anyone playing in a major European league. He had the chance to join Leeds or Southampton in the summer but opted to wait for a better opportunity and, thanks to that form, he looks set to get one with Manchester United, Arsenal and Real Madrid all linked.

A move seems somewhat inevitable and could happen as soon as January if he impresses at the World Cup, and there’s good reason to believe he will. Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal took a liking to Gakpo immediately after returning to the role last year, starting the forward in his first two matches with the PSV man getting a goal and an assist in the second. At that point, he seemed set to be a key player for Van Gaal’s Oranje but, as Gakpo plays predominantly as a left winger at club level and has done so throughout his senior career, it was difficult to see where he would fit in the switch from 4-3-3 to 3-4-1-2.

Gakpo’s typical style of starting on the left to receive the ball before cutting back onto his right foot and sending in a cross or taking a shot usually offers devastating results. However, given the winger-less new system, it seemed as if he’d be in Qatar to impact games from the bench, but Van Gaal had other ideas. With his team drawing 2-2 with Poland in June, Gakpo was introduced as a number ten and created multiple chances, including one that led to a penalty. There PSV’s captain has remained for all three internationals since, impressing in getting two goals and an assist.

“I thought that Cody Gakpo carried out his duties in possession of the ball and in possession of the opponent,” Van Gaal said to NOS after the match against Poland in September. “This was a good lesson for him. A good development too, because he doesn’t want to play there himself. He prefers to play from the left. But I think he has everything to become a good ten.” The veteran coach’s move makes sense as it plays to Gakpo’s attributes, making him the perfect fit. He’s a serious goal-scoring threat from the middle with his height, off-the-ball movement and finishing, as was evident last month against Poland when his team-mates worked an opening around him and he drifted into the box with a well-timed run to make it 1-0.

He can create chances as well as finish them as a number ten while his pace and dribbling make him extremely difficult to stop when he’s running with the ball at his feet, and he has the vision to cut open defences with a pass. Add the fact that he’s one of the best corner-takers around right now, and will be aiming for big targets in Denzel Dumfries, Virgil van Dijk and Nathan Ake, and it’s easy to imagine Gakpo racking up goals and assists in Qatar, especially with the Netherlands being handed a relatively straightforward group of Senegal, Ecuador and Qatar.

The main question remains – can make a difference when playing top opponents? He’s often failed to do so for PSV, being silenced when up against quality right-backs. Playing in the middle should help, providing him with more freedom to roam, but if he fails to impress against strong opponents, bigger clubs will be far more reluctant to pay the big fee that PSV will surely demand. To say that this World Cup is make or break, however, is an exaggeration. At just 23, Gakpo has plenty of time to become one of the world’s best wingers regardless.

While the consequences of a poor tournament would be minimal, only delaying a move to a major league, the rewards for a good one would be huge. The Dutchman could get the big move he craves as soon as January and, more importantly, become a national hero if he can help the Netherlands become world champions for the first time. Stars are born at World Cups, and Cody Gakpo could well be next to emerge.

GBeNeFN | Finley Crebolder

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